I saw a pitiable statistic the other day.
Just 6% of voters in America are excited about the prospect of a Biden-Trump rematch in the 2024 general election. I wasn’t able to immediately identify the source, but Susan B. Glasser cited the figure in a profoundly discouraging piece for The New Yorker called “Are We Doomed To See A Biden-Trump Rematch?”
Glasser’s title said it all. For a body politic that’s angry on impassioned days and dejectedly disinterested otherwise, a re-run of the 2020 election is a fate worse than death. Sad societal testament within sad societal testament is the hesitation I have in employing that turn of phrase. Mass shootings are a daily occurrence in the US, making metaphorical allusions to death unacceptable in any context due to the guaranteed temporal proximity of real-life, double-, triple-, quadruple- and up homicides.
It doesn’t matter where Glasser’s statistic came from. I don’t think anyone doubts that no one wants to be subjected to 78-year-old Donald Trump debating 82-year-old Joe Biden. The first debate between the two in the 2020 election cycle was so bad that there were serious questions as to whether holding a second (let alone a third) was a good idea. Four years is a long time when you’re a septuagenarian. A televised battle of wits between Biden and Trump in 2024 would be to broadcast the two men’s sizable combined acuity deficit to the world.
It’s not for me to say whether Biden is just getting old or, as the right-wing echo chamber insists, experiencing cognitive decline. In the final analysis, I’m not sure the distinction matters all that much. Some cognitive decline goes along with the aging process. It’s exceedingly rare that an 80-year-old is as sharp as his 40-year-old former self. As for Trump, he’s hopelessly lost in a narcissistic delusion that dates back decades. If that’s all it was, we’d be compelled to look over it (but certainly not to vote for it). If being a sometimes delusional narcissist were a crime, I’d be in jail. But it’s a lot more than that. Trump mastered the dark art of leveraging right-wing populism to secure militant support from a sizable (if now dwindling) portion of a disaffected populace. And, unfortunately, he’s proven himself ready and willing to marshal that support in the interest of violently usurping America’s entire system of governance. (We can’t say Michael Cohen didn’t warn us.)
What’s striking about Glasser’s account is the (unintentional, but also frighteningly accurate) suggestion that the American people have no direct say in whether they will, in fact, be subjected to something that a representative sample suggests 94% avowedly don’t want. If you could somehow poll every likely American voter and the results showed that indeed, nine in 10 don’t want a Biden-Trump rematch, then who are Republican and Democratic party functionaries to foist that on the public? If 94% of Americans don’t want it, then it shouldn’t be allowed to happen.
It’s not that simple, of course. Not even close. There are an endless number of “ifs” and “unlesses.” Some voters only backed Biden in 2020 because they thought he offered the best chance of defeating Trump, for example. The same logic probably applies to 2024. That is: “I’d rather Biden not run again unless Trump is the GOP nominee and Democrats can’t produce a compelling replacement for Biden, in which case I’d actually prefer a rematch lest America be ‘Great Again. Again.'” More to the point, Biden-Trump is just one possible permutation. Saying you’d rather not see that particular electoral conjuncture isn’t the same as saying you’d rather Biden not run at all or Trump not run at all. If you’re a die hard Trump supporter, of course you want Trump on the ballot, but you might still rather not see a Biden-Trump rematch because you may view a second term for Biden as the worst possible outcome. And so on. Again, the permutations are endless.
On the Republican side, a veritable who’s who of donors have pledged to put their financial heft against Trump in the GOP primaries. Ken Griffin called Trump a “three time loser” this month, and Thomas Peterffy said that although he’d vote for Trump over a Democrat, he’ll “do whatever” he can “to make sure” Trump isn’t the nominee. On the Democratic side, there are doubtlessly scores of lawmakers and voters who’d rather Biden not run again if for no other reason than, as Glasser noted, “Biden would be 86 years old at the end of his second term,” a biologically risky scenario. Biden is president, though, so as long as he doesn’t rule out running (and so far he’s done the opposite of that), it’d be untoward for members of his own party to publicly suggest he step aside.
All we can say with something approaching confidence, is that notwithstanding the myriad “ifs” and “unlesses” that comprise voters’ decision matrix, a sizable majority of Americans wouldn’t be disappointed if 2024 isn’t a Biden-Trump rematch. There’s plenty of ostensible ideological overlap between Trump and Ron DeSantis to satisfy moderate right-wing radicals. I say “ostensible” because I doubt DeSantis is a genuine culture warrior. But he plays the part well, which means GOP voters wedded to the message but not necessarily to the messenger (my definition of a “moderate radical”) aren’t just going to stay home on election day because their red Trump hats are irrelevant. On the Democratic side, I’d argue voters are even more open to a fresh face, just not in a scenario where that entails risking a second term for Trump, and not if it means going too far down the road to “socialism,” with the scare quotes to denote that socialism is everywhere in America, we just don’t call it that. (Capitalism is, famously, just socialism for the rich, and we often pretend as though we have no idea where Medicare comes from or who’s paying the city employees repaving the sidewalks, and so on.)
Despite all of this, Trump and Biden are the early favorites to secure their respective party nominations — according to the same (statistically) voters who don’t want a rematch. Crucially, it’s impossible to disentangle what Americans actually want from their expectations of what’s likely, which is where, I’d argue, the country needs an intervention.
One recent poll showed Trump would beat DeSantis in a landslide of epic proportions in a hypothetical primary battle. (Trump was elated: “For all RINOS, Never Trumpers, Radical Left Democrats and, of course, the Fake News Media, please enjoy this latest poll from highly respected Emerson College.”)
The same poll showed both Trump and DeSantis losing to Biden in a general election. Spencer Kimball, executive director of the poll, flagged “a stark education divide among Republican primary voters.” Nearly three quarters of such voters with a high school degree or less backed Trump, compared to just 14% for DeSantis. Trump’s edge over DeSantis with college-educated GOP primary voters was smaller, while his margin with Republican voters boasting a postgraduate degree was razor thin. The same poll showed that in a hypothetical 2024 Democratic primary, Biden’s lead over Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders is so large that they (Harris and Sanders) shouldn’t even bother.
But how accurate can polls like that possibly be? Trump’s 2016 victory showed how difficult it is to project election outcomes in the US these days, as did (ironically in that context) predictions for a “red wave” in the 2022 midterms. The actual results this month resembled “purple mud,” as I put it, thanks mostly to a string of humiliating losses for Trump-backed candidates.
I’d be inclined to suggest that Americans’ preferences, as measured by polls like Emerson’s, are colored by their expectations. If you’re a GOP primary voter with an 11th grade education and you don’t live in Florida, what’s the likelihood that you even know who DeSantis is? If you’re a Democrat sitting here, right now, in late November 2022, who’s your candidate if not Biden?
The critical point is this: Statistically (but not likely literally), the same voters who see a Biden-Trump rematch as the most likely outcome in 2024, and who suggest they’d help make it happen in the primaries, are the voters who overwhelming don’t want to be subjected to a 2020 re-run.
All “ifs” and “unlesses” aside, there’s something wrong with that picture.
I’m not sure how best to address it, but I’m quite sure that a popularity contest between two people who, as Glasser noted, are both unpopular with a majority of the public, is a highly unfortunate oxymoron, destined to leave the country even more divided than it already is.